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The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 15733

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Even at the risk of making my autobiography open to accusation that it is a kind of Strachey Anthology, I should be giving a false impression of myself and my life at Oxford if I did not say something about my poetical life at the University, for there, as in my childhood and my boyhood, poetry played a great part. I did not leave the Muses till I left their bower on the Isis. Every mood of my Oxford life was reflected in my verse. I can only record a very few of those reflections, and here, again, must look forward to some day making a collection of my poems and letting them tell their own tale-an interesting incursion, I venture to say, for those who are interested in the evolution of English verse from 1870 to 1890.

The first thing to be recorded in this epitome of my biographica poetica is my intense delight at finding in Oxford people of my own age who cared for poetry as I did, and the same kind of poetry. It is true that most of my friends with a poetic bent wore their rue with a difference, but that did not matter. Though they practised a different rite, they were all sworn to the great mystery of the Muses. Men like Beeching, Mackail, Nichols, Warren, and also Willie Arnold, who, though not an undergraduate, very soon became one of my close friends, never failed, and this is the test, to be delighted in any new discovery in verse with which I was for the moment intoxicating myself.

I was always irregular in my tastes. If I liked a piece of verse, I liked it with passion and praised it inordinately; again I was apt to be as absolute in my dislike. I was a kind of poaching gipsy of literature. I had not only a willingness to eat any wild thing from a hedgehog to a beechnut or a wild raspberry, but also an uncanny power of finding out literary game, raising it, and trapping it, not by the stately methods of the scholar but by some irrational and violent intuition. Instead of reading slowly, patiently, and laboriously, as no doubt I ought to have read, i.e., as my tutors would have liked me to read, I used to dive headlong into some poet, old or young. Even if I could only "get at him" for an odd half-hour, I could bring back with me something worth keeping, something which would sing in my head and be forced into the ears of my friends for many days, and sometimes many weeks.

This habit of what one might call random and sudden quotation was amusingly hit off by a friend of mine, Fry, son of the late Lord Justice Sir Edward Fry. In a neat little verse after the manner of Beeching's and Mackail's celebrated verses on the Balliol Dons-verse modelled, it may be noted, on the pageant of Kings and Queens in Swinburne's Poems and Ballads, Fry thus delineated me:

I am Strachey, never bored

By Webster, Massinger or Ford;

There is no line of any poet

Which can be quoted, but I know it.

In the first couplet I have to own a true bill. Even if my friends were bored, though I was not, which I now feel must have often been the case, they certainly never showed it. I seemed to be given a kind of privilege or license to quote as much as ever I liked.

I expect, however, that the Dons were not quite as easy-going. If I quoted something that seemed to me apposite at the end of a lecture, or when I was seeing my tutor over an essay, I noticed with an innocent wonderment that they were apt to appear shocked. Probably I made them feel nervous. Either they had not heard the lines before, and, therefore, very likely thought that I was trying to get a score off them by inventing some tag of rhymes which I could afterwards say they took for genuine, or, on the other hand, if they did know the lines, I made some blunder in quoting them which painfully added to a conviction already formed that I was a wild, inconsequent, and shallow-minded boy whose only idea was to "show off" and strut about in borrowed plumes. After all, even if that was a mistaken diagnosis it was not an unnatural one.

I was an unsettling and unclassifiable influence in a place that liked orderly classification. The Dons, I make no doubt, felt about me as did Lance about his dog. He who undertakes to be an undergraduate should be an undergraduate in all things, and not a kind of imitation Bohemian verse-writer, bawling his creaking couplets through the College Hall. They knew the type of scholar who could write good Greek verse, and even English verse. They also knew, and in a way respected, the athlete, the hunting man, or "the magnificent man" who kept two hunters and a private servant, and spent at the rate of a couple of thousands a year. But here was a creature who did not fit into any of these categories, and who was painfully irregular without being vicious or extravagant, or drunken, or abnormally rowdy. I was, in fact, a mental worry. I could not be fitted neatly into Oxford life.

I have mentioned Fry's rhyme about me. I must also mention Beeching's verse, or at any rate the first couplet-the rest, though friendly enough, was not worthy of the opening:

Spoken jest of Strachey, shall it

Fail to raise a smile in Mallet?

I was, of course, pleased to be thus associated with my friend, though honesty compels me to say that I laughed quite as much, or even more, at Mallet's jests than he did at mine. Still for the rhyme's sake (I have always sympathised with the rhymer's difficulties), it was necessary to put the joke on the other leg.

At Balliol in the late 'seventies' and early 'eighties' we were a nest of singing-birds. I well remember the present Sir Rennell Rodd coming into my rooms when I was a freshman and asking me whether I would contribute to a little collection of poems which he and a group of his friends were bringing out, the group, by the way, including the present Lord Curzon. I shyly assented; but there was a difficulty. They wanted something short and lyrical, and most of my verses were either too long, or else, I thought, too immature to be published. In the end, Rodd carried off with him the following lyric-a work in regard to which I felt no pride of parentage either then or now, and only quote because it was made the occasion for a very neat parody by Mackail. Here is the poem:

My lute

Lies mute,

My lyre is all unstrung,

And the music it once flung

Dies away.

In the day

I have no power to sing,

Nor doth the night-time bring

Any song.

All is wrong,

Now my lady hath no care

For my heart and for my prayer.

The parody was quite delightful, and I can well remember the intense joy with which I heard of it and my surprise that the author thought it necessary to apologise for it. He apparently thought I might be hurt. It ran something like this:

My scout

Is out.

My scout is never in.

I am growing very thin,

And pale-

etc., etc.

Our verse efforts, though not very good in themselves, had a good result.

A rival clique of poets, led by Mackail and Beeching, put forward a little pamphlet of their own, full of what was really exquisite verse of the Burne-Jones, Morris, Swinburne type. In the following term, however, the two poetic schools amalgamated under a common editorship, adopting the name of Waifs and Strays as their title. To almost every issue of the Waifs and Strays I contributed, though I think my Editors sometimes were rather horrified at my sending in so much blank verse, and blank verse of what the Elizabethans called a "licentious" type, that is, not governed by strict rules.

Besides this, my poems were apt to be too long. I had a friendly conflict over them with Beeching. It showed, however, the open- mindedness of the Morrisean editors that my poetry, though so entirely different to their own, was not only accepted but that they showed great sympathy with my experiments in unrhymed measures.

Oxford mem

ories are among the pleasantest things in the world; they are the last chapter, or last chapter but one, in the book of youth. But I must soon roll up the enchanted manuscript, come to sterner things, and leave many serene hours unnumbered. Especially do I regret to pass over the long days spent on the river in a four, with a cox and a good luncheon and tea hamper in the stern, and a sixth man in the bows. Those, indeed, were sweet hours and the fleetest of time. Mallet, I, and Warren were usually the nucleus of the party. To ourselves we added another three. Among these was sometimes Grant Duff, sometimes Horatio Brown, who, though he had left Oxford at that period, was often "up for a month or two"; sometimes, too, Portsmouth Fry, and one or other of Mallet's Clifton College friends. Again, sometimes Mallet's brother Stephen, or my brother Henry, joined the pursuit of the golden fleece.

I was always for pushing on in order to experience something or discover something. As Pepys used to say, "I was with child to see something new." Once, by incredible exertion, I managed to get my boatload as far up the river as Lechlade. The place, I need hardly say, was chosen by me not for geographical reasons or because of the painted glass, but solely and simply because of Shelley's poem. I longed to go to the actual source of the river, to Thames-head itself, but in this I never succeeded. Mallet was always for milder measures, and for enjoying the delights of the infant Thames at Bablock Hythe, or some place of equal charm and less exertion. Like the poet in Thomson, as I frequently reminded him, he

Would oft suspend the dashing oar

To bid his gentle spirit rest.

He would demand, or take, an "easy" on the slightest pretext. A water- lily, the dimness of his eyeglass, the drooping of the sunlight in the West, the problem of whether some dingy little bird was a kingfisher or a crested wagtail, demanded consultation and a pause in our toil. Occasional rests, he proved, were a wise, nay, necessary precaution with a heavy old tub manned by indifferent oarsmen. I, on the other hand, would have violently explored the Thames in a man-o'-war's barge if I could have done it no other way.

We talk of the charm of the open road, but what is it to the charm of the open river, especially when the stream gets narrow? There, if anywhere, reigns the Genius of the Unexpected. You push your boat round some acute angle of water, with willows and tall rushes obscuring your course, and then suddenly shoot out into the open, with a view, perhaps, of an old church or manor-house, or of stately fields and trees-things which a boy feels may be the prelude to the romance of his life. So strong with me, indeed, was this feeling that fate was waiting round the corner, not to stick a knife into me, but perhaps to crown me, that when I wrote my unfinished novel, I began with a boatload of undergraduates shooting out of the Thames up a tunnel of green boughs made by a canalised brook, into a little lake in front of an exquisite grey Elizabethan house. There the heroine and an aged parent or guardian were surprised taking tea upon a bank studded with primroses and violets. How an aged parent or guardian consented to have tea out-of-doors in violet- time was not explained! But if I do not take care I shall go the way of those orators who take up the whole of their speeches in explaining that they have not time to say anything. Therefore, farewell to the glories and delights of the Thames.

Whether, in point of fact, I was a bad son of Oxford, or she a disdainful, indifferent, or careless mother, I neither know nor desire to know. It is enough for me, as I have said already, that I loved her young and love her now, love her for her faults as much as for her virtues, but love her most of all for her beauty and her quietness, and for the golden stream of youth which runs a glittering torrent through her stately streets and hallowed gardens, her walks between the waters, and her woodlands. The punctual tide of young hearts ebbs and flows as of yore in a thousand college rooms-true cells of happiness. It informs and inspires every inch of Oxford. It murmurs in her libraries and in her galleries and halls. The pictures of the men of the past-often England's truest knights of the eternal spirit-look gravely from their deep-set frames.

But what is the use of a biography if it is general and not particular? I may too often yield, like most people, to the temptations of a vague rhetoric, but not here. Every loving thought of Oxford has for me stamped upon it a specific and an originating example. When I think of the faces looking down on me from the walls, and of how ardently I used to wish that I might call my academic grandsires "my home and feast to share," I picture myself back in Oxford, listening to a lecture in the Hall of University. I see above me and above the wainscot Romney's (or is it Gainsborough's?) picture of "the generous, the ingenuous, the high-souled William Wyndham." I recall the delight with which I thought of that fascinating and impulsive creature. He had sat where I was sitting, and had dreamed like me in that very Hall the dreams of youth.

I keep in mind yet another specific example of how I linked myself to the past. I remember, when dining in Christ Church Hall with a friend, that I had the good luck to find myself opposite Lawrence's picture of Eden, afterwards Lord Auckland, the young diplomatist. He is dressed, if I remember rightly, in a green velvet coat of exquisite tint and texture. I daresay if by chance a reader looks up the two pictures he will find that under the spell of memory they have assumed beauties not their own. But what does that matter? They were to me, at twenty, an inspiration. They are still, at sixty, a dream of delight.

Yet, intense as was my joy, when I return to Oxford and see my son sharing the old pleasures, though with a difference, I can honestly say, "Non equidem invideo miror magis"-"I do not envy, but am the more amazed." I hope, nay, am sure that my son can retort with sincerity from this shepherd's dialogue turned upside down, "O fortunate senex; ergo tua rura manebunt"-"Oh, happy old man; therefore your little fields and little woodlands at Newlands shall still flourish and abound."

As my father taught me by his example long ago, I can be supremely happy in my remembrances, and yet even happier at my own end of the continuum. One has a right to be Hibernian in an Einstein world. After all, have I not a right to be? I, who have always been an explorer at heart, am getting near the greatest exploration of all. There are only two or three more bends of the stream, and I shall shoot out into that lake or new reach, whichever it may be. I may have a pleasant thrill of dread of what is there, but not of fear. The tremendous nature of that magnificent unknown may send a shiver through my limbs, but it is stimulating, not paralysing.

Therefore, though I enjoy the past in retrospect, I open my arms with a lover's joy to the future that is rushing to meet me. The man who cannot enjoy that which is in front of him has never really enjoyed the past. He is so much engaged in whimpering over what he has lost, that he misses the glory of what is to come. Heaven be praised that sons have morning when fathers have night, and may the fountain of perpetual youth always send its best, its clearest, its most musical rivulets through the High, the Broad, and the Corn.

But, though my memories of Oxford are so vivid and so happy, they are also, as must in the end be all things human, enwoven with tears. It was there that my eldest son died. I cannot do more than record the bare fact. Yet I cannot write of Oxford as if he had never been. The shadow that falls across my page could not be gainsaid.

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